Vladimir Putin’s Russia has long sought to weaken the European Union and in this respect Brexit can be seen as a major success. Disconnecting the United Kingdom from the EU will inevitably have long term political consequences. Putin, flanked by influential architects of Russian expansionism such as Alexandr Dugin, is obsessed with the restoration of Russia as a great power; this includes establishing and consolidating its geopolitical sphere of influence in the Baltic Sea region. For EU countries in the area, such as Sweden and Finland, the role of NATO is more critical since Brexit. Thus any further division within NATO or questioning whether it may be suffering from a ‘brain death’ are a concerns for the two Nordic nations.
Russian hybrid warfare, similar to that witnessed in Georgia and the Ukraine (although without violence), has been detected in both Sweden and Finland for nearly two decades. The EU remains an economic giant but lacks a trained army and military intelligence necessary to provide any serious deterrent. Finland is especially vulnerable with its 1340 km (832 mile) land border with Russia, which is also one of the EU's longest external borders. In order to avoid a power vacuum in the Baltic Sea region, the military non-alignment policy of Finland and Sweden should be urgently reconsidered but not without an in-depth analysis regarding the lessons of the Cold War.
The brutal Soviet occupation of the Baltic states drove them to join both the EU and NATO as quickly as possible after the Soviet Union collapsed. They actively rejected ‘Finlandisation’: Lithuanian freedom fighter and president Vytautas Landsbergis defied a number of Western scholars who advised the former Soviet republics to follow Finland’s model of staying outside any military alliances to avoid aggravating Russia. At the end of the Soviet military occupation in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev’s goal for the former Warsaw Pact countries was Finlandisation: they were to remain in a Soviet-led political union acting as a buffer zone against the West.
In 2004, once the Baltic states had been accepted into both the EU and NATO, Finland and Sweden preferred to remain ‘militarily non-aligned’. They did so for two key reasons: perceived lessons from history and changing threats to national security. The two Nordic nations criticised the Baltic states for their perceived ‘paranoia’ and ‘historic Russophobia’.
A tradition of pacifist foreign policy has enjoyed consensual support in Sweden because the once substantial military power has managed to avoid engaging in any major war over the last 200 years. However, since the early 1960s during the Cold War, Sweden’s foreign policy had two faces like Janus: on the one hand, it had a secret defense co-operation agreement with the United States but on the other hand, the Social Democratic Party pursued neutrality. Therefore, Sweden could act as an international peace broker. Veteran diplomat and scholar of international law Bo Theutenberg has argued that during the Cold War, Sweden played a risky political game; one that may even have led to the assassination of prime minister Olof Palme in 1986. He has openly challenged the theory about ” a lonely killer” with convincing arguments.
In his well documented Diaries (1976-88), Theutenberg insists that like Finland, also Sweden was also influenced by the KGB. The Swedish Social Democrats supported Soviet peace initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s in tandem with their Finnish comrades. As a consequence, Finlandisation happened in Sweden, too. Political elites in both countries believed that "the Soviet order" in Eastern Europe was essential for peace, as the president of Finland Mauno Koivisto told Yasuhiro Nakasone, the prime minister of Japan, in January 1987.
After the annexation of Crimea, Russia has publicly warned Finland of serious consequences should "Nato’s infrastructure" be brought to the border of Russia and Finland. During the last 20 years Russia has taken both covert and overt active measures in Finland. These KGB tactics were resurrected, refined and further developed on Vladimir Putin’s orders as soon as he became president in 2000. In her book Putinin Pihapiirissä / In Putin’s Backyard (2020), Finnish investigative journalist Tuula Malin reveals an extensive network of properties in areas critical to national security infrastructure of Finland, purchased by Russians with proven ties to the Kremlin. She criticises the Finnish military intelligence for failing to spot the large scale sales of these properties over the course of 16 years and individual politicians for downplaying the threat of this "covert invasion" to national security. The widespread activity of Kremlin-controlled hackers and trolls both in Finland and Sweden is also obvious by now and includes capturing sensitive information (kompromat), secrets from the foreign ministry by hacking as well as harassing individuals critical of Putin’s Russia.
As recently as 2014, in the spirit of Sweden’s pacifist tradition, prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt stated: "War is no longer possible in Europe". As a consequence of its pacifist consensus, Sweden had radically reduced the size of its army. Today, it can hardly be denied that Sweden’s weakened military defense capability is a major problem for the Baltic Sea region. On December 9th 2020, the Joint Commission of the Swedish Parliament took a step towards NATO membership by approving a resolution declaring NATO membership an option for its future defense strategy. Even the populist, ultra-nationalist Sweden Democrats changed its anti-NATO line. In Finland, the state maintains a conscription army and a strong defense system with both regularly embedded in the mandates of successive governments.
Brexit should be a wake-up call to the leaders and political parties in Helsinki and Stockholm: it is essential to understand the nature of the new security threat to Europe. In addition to Brexit, events in Belarus are also highly significant. The historically important relationship between the Nordic and Baltic nations and the UK needs to be safeguarded by the NATO membership of Finland and Sweden. The Joe Biden administration would almost certainly support the continued expansion of NATO which would help to stabilise and secure the Baltic Sea region as well as Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus. Russia should not be rewarded for its aggressive foreign policy. The Kremlin's enemy is not NATO but freedom which needs to be protected in Europe, the United States, and Russia.
"The more you understand the world, the higher your chance of shaping it".
Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.
Valtiotieteen tohtori, suurlähettiläs, tasavallan presidentin entinen neuvonantaja, professori ja kirjailija.
Kirjoituksia saa lainata. Lähde on mainittava.